Teaching guitar is a fantastic way to earn a living. It can be hugely rewarding to know that you’re passing on skills and helping people get better at what they love doing. It’s also very cool to leave for work with a guitar case rather than a briefcase! We thought it would make a really interesting read to gather a couple of very experienced teachers and ask them some questions regarding their teaching methods and how they got into the profession.
If you’ve ever tried to teach then you’ll understand that it’s much more than simply sitting down with a couple of guitars and strumming out a few tunes. To take someone from beginner level to a fully competent player takes skill, experience and planning. Every teacher has different methods and personally I find it really interesting to see how different people approach the same challenges!
We hope you all find this useful and interesting; please do leave any questions in the comments!
Let’s start by introducing yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
I have been fortunate to have a varied career as a musician, performing and teaching. This year marks my twentieth anniversary as a guitar teacher.
Currently I teach group and private guitar at a Music Academy in Santa Monica, private lessons out of my home studio and online interactive lessons through TrueFire.
I have sample video lessons, music and commercials for the online courses on my website at http://www.robgarland.net
Ryan Fox: My name is Ryan Andrew Fox and I am a Musician/ Web Geek. I own two live streaming music lessons websites and teach voice lessons on one of them. I also teach drums/guitar privately in San Diego, Ca.
How did you get into teaching and what made you decide to start?
Rob: From an early age I began playing in different bands in the U.K. and I always tried to cultivate my own style. Through gigs people started asking me if I gave lessons, so I began putting some lesson plans together and started teaching, advertising through local music shops and word of mouth. When I moved to the U.S. I advertised online and at my gigs, which helped me build up a large body of students. These days to promote books and online courses, I also (rather shamefully) embrace the various social media outlets.
Ryan: I got into teaching because I loved playing and it was pretty enticing to play for a living. The other reason was because I was tired of peeling potatoes at IN N Out burger as a 19 year old pimply faced teenager. I started by putting fliers on lampposts all around my neighborhood. I had no clue what I was doing as a teacher but you get what you pay for when it’s only 20 bucks an hour.
Based on your experience, what have you found the best way to plan and construct lessons?
Rob: It really depends on the student’s goals and their situation. Some of the people I teach at the music school are balancing careers and families and may only have an hour or two a week to play and so they often want to spend their free time learning their favourite songs. Other students really have a desire to understand music and the guitar, so for them I will construct a comprehensive lesson plan that includes topics such as music theory, chord construction, songwriting and improvisation. These kind of students I encourage to leap down the rabbit hole (so to speak) and they tend to study with me for many years, or at least until they get fed up with my jokes. For every student no matter what their ability level is, I always plan my lessons ahead of time because I always like to be prepared. I went to a couple of teachers when I was a teenager who asked me what I wanted to do each week and I always felt that they should have taken the lead and had something planned out for me, as they were the teacher. Another thing I’ve found is that it’s important to stretch a student’s capabilities by picking a song or assignment that challenges them, but at the same time the material should be relevant to the student’s musical interests. If somebody comes to me and asks to learn how to play jazz standards, I’m not going to start out by giving them a reggae song, well unless the L.A. traffic was especially bad that day!
Ryan: Constructing lessons gets a let easier after you have been teaching for a while. To be honest at first I was just making up the lesson plan as I went. I had a few books that I could fall back on if I couldn’t think of something or transcribe the song the student wanted to learn. It was sink or swim in the beginning but most of the time I swam. When I create lesson plans now I just try to put on the page what has worked for my students in the past. It’s usually best to break a lesson plan into 3 segments. Most times I’ll start with a warm up,(scales, rudiments, etc.) then focus on technique, and lastly work on a song that the student likes. I’ll mix in ear training, and sight singing into the lesson plans as well. It’s really important to balance work with play. If you focus on technique to much you wont have any students. If you focus on fun to much your students may not learn as much you would want them to. Honestly it’s best to make the lesson too fun rather than to technical because if you make it too fun you still have the student learning his/her instrument.
How do you recommend students practice? Do you have any special tips or advice, or do you prefer to leave it to the individual?
Rob: Again this largely depends on the student and their amount of free time. Students that enroll in my online interactive classroom (‘Guitar Babylon’) for example, have the luxury of filming their individual practice assignments and receiving my continuous feedback before moving on to their next task. For beginners I used to suggest my “T.V.” method of practicing chords, where a student picks up the guitar on every commerical break of a television programme and practices the chord transitions to a song. For a T.V. show in the U.S. a student would get twenty minutes of practice per hour. However technolgy evolved and TiVo/DVR’s ruined that approach! An obvious but useful tip is to practice songs at a slow tempo, but still in time, so you are learning to make the chord changes, which helps muscle memory develop, rather than trying to learn a song at a faster tempo but with gaps while you transition between the chords.
Ryan: The student isn’t going to practice how you want them too at first (usually). I tell them to structure their practice like I structure the lessons. Start with the warm up, focus on technique, then work on songs/free play. The only part of that sentence they will usually understand is songs/free play. Developing work ethnic is a skill that is to be taught in the lessons. For students with weak attention spans I like to have them focus on a certain exercise for 30 seconds, 1 minute, etc. Make sure that they are conscious of any thought that pops into their heads that doesn’t have anything to do with the task at hand. Then tell them to try really hard to focus on the exercise. If you have had the student for a few months and they are loving the lessons then that’s the time to make them do their practice routine for you. Then you give them tips on how to improve it. Do this every few months or whenever you feel like it’s the right time.
Sometimes it’s inevitable that you’ll have a student that just won’t practice. How do you go about motivating people to put the required amount of time into their development?
Rob: Medieval torture devices work especially well. But aside from that, I try to get people REALLY excited about music and the guitar. When I was a kid I could play one note for an hour and just loved the whole experience of it-the feel, the sound, the smell of the guitar-everything. And the amazing thing is that all these years later, despite real life and all that, I am still as excited and moved by it all as I was then, possibly more so. I can still play one note and feel that same connection. It’s a cliche but the more you put into the guitar (or any instrument) the more you will get out of it. It also depends on whether your glass is half full or not because as soon as you think you’ve learnt something, you discover there are five more things to learn and that you really know nothing! One thing guitar teachers are up against these days in our fast food soundbite culture is the task of convincing young people to put in the time, because learning an instrument does not come with the instant gratification of a video game like Guitar Hero, the real thing takes a bit more effort and focus, but it is so much cooler if you stick with it.
Ryan: The best thing to do here is try to keep your own sanity. It flat out sucks when a student doesn’t value music but you can’t let that get to you. All you can do is do your best to get through to them in that hour than move on to the next lesson. Don’t make the kid feel guilty or else he/she will leave. Sometimes you will want them to leave. Sounds terrible, but it’s true. I’ve had to quit teaching a few students because they were little monsters. Look out for your own sanity first, otherwise you wont be able to have a good practice session when you get home. I’ve also had students that haven’t practiced for two years, but suddenly got into it. THERE IS HOPE!
Lastly, do you have any advice for people (young and old!) looking to get started?
Rob: I often hear older students say they wish they’d started playing years earlier, but my view is that music is timeless so you are never too young or old to play. It doesn’t matter what your aspirations are, even if it’s just to play a few chords, the experience of learning and seeing it come to fruition will enrich your life, so don’t make excuses, you can find twenty minutes a day, just go ahead and do it and I promise you, you’ll be glad you did, or your money back, haha!
Ryan: The longer you teach the better your job will get. You will be teaching students at some point that you’ve had for years. Chances are that these students will be enjoyable to teach. Advertise around the neighborhood a lot. Advertise on craigslist, at local music shops, and just tell people that you are a music teacher with confidence. Find out what people charge in your city and maybe charge just under that, or the same. If you undervalue yourself you will get less business. The most important thing is to show up to your lesson with a smile on your face. I hate to say it but being a cool teacher is equally as important as having good content to teach in your lessons. Most teenagers want to be treated like an adult so if you do that, they are going to love you. WARNING SHAMELESS PLUG AHEAD! Be organized and show up on time. I’ve gotten show much business because the teacher before was 30 minutes late to every lesson. That’s all I got.
Thanks to both Rob and Ryan for your time and help with this interview – really appreciate your effort with the great answers J
image credit – imagined reality